Again and again in his presidency, the current White House occupant has found himself uncomfortably imitating his predecessor, whom he has vilified and blamed for just about every problem that comes across his desk. Unfortunately, President Obama, unlike President George W. Bush, either doesn’t believe in what he is obliged to do or doesn’t want to incur the wrath of his base. As a result, he fiddles, delays, and ultimately delivers halfhearted responses to our challenges that please no one and only deepen our foes’ contempt and our allies’ nervousness.
To review, Obama has expanded Bush’s drone program; kept Guantánamo Bay open and used military tribunals; initiated military action in Libya and will likely do so in Syria; and kept in place the NSA surveillance program.
Obama in these endeavors has been at odds with his liberal base. As a result, it seems Obama’s heart just isn’t in it. He declared earlier this year that he’d shut down Gitmo if only Congress would let him, and the “legacy” problem (what to do with terrorists we can neither try nor release) will take care of itself. Practically no one on either side of the aisle believed Obama was serious, or even comprehensible.
Obama has used the drone program extensively but wrapped his administration up in so much red tape and phony constitutional-sounding language as to neither restrict action nor make clear that the president has the executive authority under the Constitution to act. And with regard to the NSA program, he seems embarrassed to have kept a successful anti-terror policy, declining until the last minute to lobby the House against a measure to defund it.
So much of what George W. Bush understood — we are in a prolonged conflict with jihadists, this is a war that requires military rather than legalistic responses, etc. — has been absorbed by Obama reluctantly and belatedly. He undoes his own policies by trying to distinguish himself from his predecessor (a surge with a deadline, a strike on Bashar al-Assad with no strategic purpose, belated action in Libya followed by inexcusable neglect) that his policies, to the extent he has them, become incoherent.
What are we trying to do in Egypt and how do we plan to do it? You got me. What’s the purpose of a military strike on Syria if chemical weapons and Bashar al-Assad remain? No one quite knows.
We’ve learned the hard way over the last four-and-a-half years that most of what Obama believes in (the U.S. can defer to international bodies, U.S. involvement in conflicts inevitably makes things worse, despots can be won over, a decade of war is ending) is wrong and dangerous. But more importantly — and as a warning to the electorate in 2016 — we’ve learned that a president’s character matters most of all in foreign policy.
In 2016 we may be faced with a number of candidates who lack foreign policy experience. We can quiz them on their views, but I would suggest that assessing their mettle is more important. Does the candidate have the wherewithal to ignore political considerations (even from his own base), international criticism and media hysterics when national security is at stake? (A candidate who doesn’t give a hoot about the thinking of the New York Times editorial board, the United Nations General Assembly and the Nobel Prize committee is worth his weight in gold.) Does the candidate understand that without the exercise of U.S. power the world becomes more unstable and dangerous? Does he know which powers are amenable to negotiated resolution of problems and which are not? Does he understand that every American action or failure to act becomes part of the assessment of our intent and will?
It’s no secret the president cares more about building and securing an enlarged social welfare state than he does about projecting American power and values. In fact, the latter he sees as harmful to the former. We can’t afford next time to elect as president someone whose priorities are inverted, who doesn’t believe in use of American power (soft and hard) to protect our interests and whose toughness will constantly be in question.